Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Ronnie’s plays at the Northwest Film Forum, The Hand of God and Fresh are streaming.
There is a galaxy behind every façade—takes Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London, for instance. It opened in Soho in 1959 and has hosted every jazz luminary imaginable, and you would guess that a documentary about it would have some swinging performance footage and a nice collection of testimonials. And Oliver Murray’s film Ronnie’s certainly has those things. But the peek behind the façade, into the nuts and bolts of the place—wow. Who knew about the complicated series of negotiations that went into American jazz players coming to England—the obstacle course that needed navigating, more dexterously than a Sonny Rollins saxophone run? Or about the delicate (but apparently devoted, despite the occasional cloudbursts) business partnership between the mercurial sax player Ronnie Scott and dogged Pete King, himself a musician but also a loyal pal with a canny head for business and a deft hand for dealing with local gangsters?
Maybe devoted jazzheads would’ve known about those complications, but if you make the assumption that a beloved and successful institution like Ronnie Scott’s simply runs itself somehow, the revelations in the movie are a tangled reminder of the fact that nothing like this ever just happens. Anyway, yes, the music: The movie has lots of that, with gigs from Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone—a regal roster. There’s an audio recording of Jimi Hendrix kerrranggging his way through a guest appearance during a set by Eric Burdon and War, which becomes poignant with the knowledge that Hendrix would be dead a few hours later. For gooseflesh-raising, there’s Van Morrison doing “Send in the Clowns” sometime in the mid-1980s, with Chet Baker alongside in support. Except for a curious extension/advertisement at the very end of the documentary, evidently to assure us that Ronnie’s is in good hands with new ownership, this movie is a lovely combination of dream and blueprint.
The Hand of God
A whole lot of people liked Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, an Oscar-winning update of “La Dolce Vita” with a series of pretty surfaces and regular stabs at depth. Sorrentino is back in the Oscar circle this year as one of the five International Film nominees, this time with The Hand of God, a similarly eye-pleasing spectacle. The Great Beauty was about a 65-year-old writer assessing his life in Rome; this time it’s a teenager adrift in Naples, the director’s hometown. The Hand of God has some genuinely haunting touches that feel directly drawn from experience—our protagonist Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) cracking open his parents’ bedroom on a night when their marriage has blown up, revealing his mother standing there furiously juggling oranges (it’s her party trick) as though to exorcise something.
There are enough moments like that, and enough gorgeous production design, to justify the movie’s existence, although once again it feels like Sorrentino’s sensibility is too easy and sentimental to get the movie where it so clearly wants to go. Il Divo remains his best film, its pulse provided by history and gangster-movie conventions. Granular material, like Hand of God‘s sidebar episode when Fabie goes along for a nighttime boat ride to Capri with a smuggler, is Sorrentino’s groove. Big Ideas trip him up.
All too clearly a Get Out-style blend of horror with subtext, Mimi Cave’s Fresh, written by Lauryn Kahn, puts a young woman (Daisy Edgar-Jones) in the unfamiliar position of accepting a date from a guy she actually meets in real life, not online. That he turns out (spoilers, perhaps?) to be not only a cannibal, but a businessman who supplies human meat to connoisseurs, is just another harsh reality of the dating life these days. The movie is rightly merciless on the absurdities of misogyny and clueless dudes, and it ticks the genre boxes in reasonably effective ways—although I can’t begin to imagine how to justify the sequence in which the cannibal entrepreneur (the reliably colorless Sebastian Stan) dances around his kitchen, gleefully preparing his variety meats for shipping.
March 11, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.